Diplomatic tensions are high between old rivals India and Pakistan after a high-profile Pakistani diplomat said he received death threats from a member of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this week.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said in a Bloomberg interview that there’s a $240,000 reward issued by an Indian political worker to behead him. The bounty is in response to his statement at the United Nations Security Council meeting last week where Bhutto-Zardari called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the “butcher of Gujarat,” referring to the deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in the Indian state, while Modi was the chief minister.
Modi is accused of allowing the violence that killed over 1,000 people, mostly India’s Muslim minority. He always denied the accusations but was nevertheless banned from entering the U.S. for the same reason. In 2014, he became the prime minister and the ban was lifted.
The bounty was first reported on by reporters in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, which is considered the heart of Hindu nationalism. Local BJP member Manupal Bansal said he will give a reward of $240,000 to anyone “who will behead minister Bilawal Bhutto.”
“If [Pakistanis] say such things about our PM, whom we respect a lot, then we are not going to tolerate such a person,” Bansal is quoted as saying.
The UN meeting where the heated exchange of words started, was about countering global terrorism. There, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar’s accused Pakistan of being the “epicentre” of terrorism and brought up the fact that the 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was hiding out there when he was killed by the U.S. Navy seals. To this, Bhutto-Zardari said, “Osama bin Laden is dead, but the butcher of Gujarat lives and he is the Prime Minister of India.”
While India’s foreign minister called the comments a “new low, even for Pakistan,” Bhutto-Zardari stood his ground even days later.
“I did not invent the term, ‘Butcher of Gujarat’ for Mr Modi,” Bhutto-Zardari said in a video statement. “The Muslims in India following the Gujarat riots used that term. I believe I was referring to historical fact, and [Indians] believe that repeating history is a personal insult.”
India and Pakistan have been hostile rivals since they parted ways into their own independent states in 1947. Diplomatic barbs aside, they also have volatile border relations. In March this year, India “accidentally” fired a missile into Pakistan territory, which was unprecedented since both the countries are nuclear armed and have fought three wars.
Michael Kugelman, the South Asia institute director at American think tank Wilson Center, told VICE World News that while the heated exchange is business as usual for the two countries, Bhutto-Zardari’s statement stood out. Unlike previous Pakistani leaders whose jibes were directed at Modi’s BJP, Bhutto-Zardari’s was aimed directly at Modi, he said. In the past, former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has likened Modi’s BJP with Hitler’s Nazi regime.
“So long as the broader strategic backdrop is calm, these wars of words are fairly routine, serve useful domestic political needs in both countries, and wind down eventually,” he said. “But if either side were to stage a fresh provocation, then all bets would be off and heated public rhetoric could become an escalation risk.”
As his statement triggered protests in India this week, Bhutto-Zardari told the media in the U.S. that Indians should protest against hate in their own country, instead of targeting him. The Pakistani foreign ministry also issued support for Bhutto-Zardari’s statement. “[The Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’] statement is a reflection of India’s growing frustration over its failure in maligning and isolating Pakistan,” it said. “India is desperately using international platforms to advance its agenda to defame and target Pakistan.”
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